“Re-accommodating” in Bhutanese airlines

Flying, which used to be one of the most glamorous ways of travelling, is quite a nightmare these days. In the post-911 era, air travel has become a pain and nauseatingly complicated at times. At best the experience is dampened by airlines jamming more seats and packing us like sardines in tin boxes. And now we have this nightmarish video of a passenger, in the ‘greatest’ country on Earth: US of A, being dragged down the aisle like a mailbag._95586434_5ad21b7b-afb8-42b1-a60e-cb06b4ec985f

Honestly, I was very disturbed by what I saw – to the point of feeling like an idiot – because I have flown United Airlines. Maybe it was because they picked on an Asian-looking guy or maybe, this was the last straw on the loads of racist narratives coming out of the US these days. Anyway it was not just me but the whole world, especially this part of the globe, that is upset.

My father, who was a truck driver, took a better care of his loads of potatoes than how some big airlines from the ‘civilised’ countries – the US in particular, treat their human cargo. On a flight from New York to San Francisco in 2014, I was even made to pay for water.

Still, since flying is the best way to get around, let me share how we in Bhutan also ‘re-accomodate’ our passengers – and where flying is still fun and glamorous. And where passengers are not just payloads or figures on the balance sheets, but human beings.

Flight overbooking is a norm in airline business. But in Bhutan, we never overbook. Instead, we under-book our flights. That’s because the airport is at 7,500 feet above sea level – and engines, like humans, need a good level of oxygen to efficiently burn the jet fuel. And oxygen is bit in short supply at this altitude while the iron birds have to safely soar up the high mountains that encircle the Paro International Airport. The aircrafts are, therefore, handicapped from taking off at full capacity.  Also, our airlines don’t bump off passengers in favor of their employees. On most occasions, it is the other way around. Employees are kept on hold till all paying passengers are checked in.

1985 0827 [7] Druk Air Dornier at Paro airport (1)
Bhutan’s first aircraft was a Dornier that had one pilot, two props and 14 seats and nothing else. The flight left when the weather God smiled and when the only pilot didn’t call in sick.
Nevertheless, giving up seats on Bhutanese airlines happens all the time. But we don’t use computers. We use human beings. They look towards the cabin and identify the most-agreeable looking Bhutanese to give up the seat. It should be Bhutanese because all foreigners are guests in Bhutan. So twice, that person happened to be me. Once it was to hand over the seat of my three-year old daughter. I was asked to put her on my lap. “What’s happening?” I asked. The air-hostess replied that there was an emergency medical evacuation. As I lifted my daughter to take her seat and vacate mine, I jokingly asked, “OK! But what does Druk Air give me in return?” “Anything,” the air-hostess replied helping me to clear the seat. And seconds later I found a soldier who was wounded at the frontier – taking my seat. In Bhutan we rarely ask why we do good things. We just do it. And we don’t limit to offering just 800 bucks. Our airlines offer “anything”, which both parties later forget anyway.

The second time was in 2003 when I got my first chance to fly the business class – courtesy of my Japanese hosts who were paying for my trip. I had just settled on the spacious leather seat when a flight attendant leaned over to me and asked if I could go to the Economy section. “Why?” I asked. In Bhutan we don’t say, ‘I paid’, or protest. Money is not everything and passengers are not just PNR numbers. The flight attendant explained that they had a VIP travelling at last minute and I would be compensated for moving to the Economy. As we were negotiating – and as I was trying to cling to my rare chance to fly business, the chief steward, who was in kindergarten with me, rushed into the cabin. He didn’t even wish me. He instantly turned back to the exit door with, “Oh! It’s Dorji Wangchuk. No problem.” In Bhutan, we can still take our friends and family members for granted. No apologies and public statements are required. However, you can also hit back for being downgraded to the coach. When the lunch was served, I told the chief steward to serve me the food from the business class – and also to pack me some fruits, bread, wine, soft drinks and beer for my long transit time through Bangkok Airport – which he grudgingly obliged. Many flights later I also reclaimed my business class seat, for free, as I wasn’t feeling well that day. The crew members didn’t even ask for proof.

The jump seat reminded me of a dining chair in a Jesuit school I went. You sit upright all the time.

Another time, the captain was one of my good friends, whom I had not seen for a while. As soon as he saw me boarding the plane he said, “Drop your bags and come over. I know you like flying.” Moments later I was bolted on the jump seat behind him like a child with the seat belt crossing all over my body. The take-off was spectacular and the pit-stop landing in Kolkata was a walk in the park for our pilots used to the treacherous Paro International – considered the world’s most difficult airport. As more passengers joined in for onward flight to Bangkok, my pilot friend informed me, “Now you can’t go back to your seat. It is taken. We picked up one extra passenger here.” In Bhutan, if we have to release a seat, we can tie up someone in the cockpit. It is very uncomfortable in there for a 4-hour flight but the view is simply marvellous.

Of course, we are not perfect. Like, we rarely fly on time. The Bhutan Standard Time has been redubbed as Bhutan Stretchable Time. We are improving though – especially if we have to fly out. But when we fly into Bhutan we have our own definition of time. Few years ago, I met a Swiss couple who was visiting a common friend of ours in Thimphu. They missed their flight in Delhi and arrived a day later. “What happened? You guys overslept or got struck in the traffic?” I asked. They looked at each other and smiled and went, “Well, we actually got to the airport one and half hour before the flight.” “Then?” I asked – bit surprised. “We were informed that the flight was not on time. And that it just left.” “Left? Before time? Did you guys protest?” “Yes, we did. We were told very nicely that our ticket clearly reminds us that because of weather conditions in Paro, flights may not be on time. And that only westerners think that ‘not on time’ means delays. Not on time could also mean before the time.” A brief silence. Then we all bursted out laughing. And my friends continued, “We thought you guys are absolutely right. Why should not-on-time be always behind? It can also mean ahead of the stipulated time. We always learn a new thing every time we come to Bhutan”.


(PS. The whole of Bhutan has 6 airplanes and 2 helicopters. We are better off than John Travolta by the two helicopters.)

Bhutanese pilots are some of the best for, there are currently only a dozen in the world certified to land in Bhutan.
Only on airlines in Bhutan cakes are served to passengers on royal birthdays of the Crown Prince or His Majesty the King.
There is no inflight entertainment on Bhutanese airlines. If you are a foreigner expect a local seated next to you with “intrusive” questions like ‘where you are from’, ‘how old are you’, ‘how many brothers and sisters you have’, ‘are you married’, picture of your spouse please, etc. This is our way of being nice, which also helps beat the ‘boring’ flight.
If you are on the left windows seats you get to see tall mountains such as Everest, Kanchenjunga and our own Jumolhari and Jichu Drake (in the pic). Many Bhutanese offer the window seats to uninformed tourists flying into Bhutan for the first time.
Meanwhile elsewhere in the world this is a regular scene at security checkpoints in the airports.
And of course there are international airlines that operates a la Bhutanese. Last February Air Macau pulled me to business class after the flight went overbooked. So from the most-agreeable man I think I graduated to the most-decent looking. At least, on that one flight.

Arrival in Macau

“Ladies and gentleman, as we will be landing shortly, please fasten your seat belts, stow your tray table and put your seat in upright position. The temperature in Hong Kong is…..”.HK1

The in-flight announcement wakes me up from my short nap. I am on Cathy Pacific flight from Bangkok en route to Macau in China. The flight was early and so I had dozed off after we took off from Suvarnabhumi Airport.

I open the window and look out. We are descending down the towering chunks of thick clouds over the South China Sea. Intermittently I get glimpses of some little spots down below that are actually large ships floating in the vast ocean. Few minutes later the aircraft descends below the cloud line and I get a better view. More ships in the sea and in the distance I see some coastline mountains that I presume is Mainland China.

The landing is smooth. The aircraft taxis to an apron. I buckle off and I go for my carry-on luggage and we slowly baby-step along the aisle. I am behind an Indian businessman who is already talking (read as shouting) on the phone. The air hostess at the exit door bids me goodbye in Japanese. I am always mistaken for my wife’s nationality.

HK14I hit the main terminal building. As I walk I look out. The Boeing 777 that I was on is now getting refuelled and checked while bags and suitcases file out from the bottom side door on to a conveyor belt. “Welcome to Hong Kong,” I say to myself, “and now get to the ferry terminal for Macau – as fast as you can.” Hong Kong Airport is the only airport that I have been to where one could get off from a plane and get on to a boat. There are regular services to Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Guangzhou on the Mainland and to Macau, which is a Special Administrative Region of China – under the Chinese government’s One-Country-Two-System arrangement.

Three hours and hot noodle lunch later I am on a large speedboat docking off and slowly heading for the open sea. Above us, an Airbus 380 bearing the Emirates logo is slowly approaching the runway with its landing gear down.HK15

Thankfully the sea is calm today and the much-dreaded motion sickness that I occasionally suffer from does not show up. And after undulating for an hour I see Macau’s iconic tower in the horizon and slowly the whole city comes into the view. Macau is a small island on the Pearl River delta bordering with Zhuhai city in Guangdong province. It was a Portuguese colony till 1999.

The Immigration officer takes my passport and asks me how long I was staying this time. Apparently he has records of my 3 previous visits. “Very long,” I tell him, “I am starting off my PhD at the University of Macau.” I reply as I wave at him the acceptance letter from the university. He gives a lukewarm endorsement but no further questions. My passport is stamped. I am admitted to stay for 60 days within which I have to renew my visa after the admission procedures at the university are completed. A 30-minute ride in a taxi passing by some of the world’s largest gambling hotels gets me to the new campus of the university. My professor had arranged another PhD student, Marilyn from China, to assist me with the check-in formalities at the Post Graduate Housing.HK17

But the reception has some problem getting me a roommate – probably because of my age and so Marilyn takes me out for dinner while they sort things out. When we are back to the office again, I am asked to follow a staff to my room on the 4th floor. I am introduced to my roommate – another PhD student from China, Mo Dazie – who is just 28.

As I check my room I find that my bed has a mattress but no pillow, blanket or bed sheet. “Where can I buy them?” I ask my new-found friend. “Come,” Mo says. We get along almost instantly. I follow him and we head out to a large store inside the campus. The campus is busy with students and professors moving in all directions. I look around, take a deep breath and smile, “So I am really back to college. I can’t believe it,” I tell myself.

“How old are you?” Mo breaks my thoughts. “49,” I reply. “49? Why you study?” Mo is rather dazzled. “I have been also asking myself. I don’t know,” I joke. We have a good laugh.

After getting my bed ready, I brush my teeth, wash my face and I crash. I don’t have the energy to even open my suitcase. It’s been a long day. As the world dims on me, I ask myself again, “What am I doing here? Why do I need to study?”

But I am too tired to ponder on these serious questions.